Nazi menace overtakes siblings in different ways in ‘My Sister’

In addition to exterminating millions of Jews, the Nazis also targeted the mentally and physically disabled under their eugenics program, aimed at weeding out people they considered genetically unfit. The precarious position of these so-called “defectives” underlies the play “My Sister,” now onstage at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.

The action, which takes place in 1932 and ’33, centers on twin sisters who have moved to Berlin from the countryside to seek their fortune just as Hitler is coming to power. The sisters are played by real-life twins Elizabeth and Emily Hinkler. One sister, Magda (Emily), works during the day as a hospital orderly but dreams of being a performer and gets a job entertaining in a cabaret on weekends. Her twin, Matilde (Elizabeth), who writes the material for Magda’s act, has cerebral palsy and so is confined to their flat. 

Playwright Janet Schlapkohl recalled that a “perfect storm of events and circumstance” led to the development of this work. Her mother is an identical twin, and Schlapkohl runs a theater company for people who are physically and intellectually challenged. In addition, she was researching members of her family who left Germany after World War I. 

“I’m not Jewish and they were not Jewish, but the fears about the type of government that was going to happen were things that I had heard family members discuss as a child,” she said. “That piqued my interest.”

In her play, developed in 2012 and previously produced at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Schlapkohl focuses on how the upheaval that took place in Germany during the early 1930s impacts the two sisters. She has created a conflict between the twins, who hold different perspectives on the rise of the Nazis. Magda isn’t as astute as her sister and initially doesn’t see the danger that lies ahead. 

“On the other hand, her sister, who’s at home with the radio for companionship during the day, is more aware,” Schlapkohl said. “Matilde, who’s putting it together, is a step ahead, only a step ahead. She becomes increasingly aware of the rhetoric against people with disabilities.”

The playwright added that the Nazis “were playing off of things that people were probably already feeling about some of the people that were disabled, about Jews, about the homosexuals who were also ‘other,’ ‘different.’

“I’m trying to root [the story] in the time. What did [the sisters] possibly know? And what could they do with that knowledge, and what should they do with that knowledge? What would I have done with that knowledge?”

Director Ron Sossi pointed out that there is a great deal Magda doesn’t know. In her naiveté, she fails to understand the actual fate of the sickest patients at the hospital. “She talks about how things are evolving, and they’re beginning to send very desperate patients to this clinic, and she thinks it’s a very positive thing that’s going on, that they’re suddenly getting the medical care they need. It turns out it’s not that at all.”

Things come to a head when Magda returns home from the hospital in shock because a nearly blind little boy to whom she was very attached has been transported in a van to the “clinic” she once believed was a place where people got special care. When she tells the nurse that the boy forgot his glasses, the nurse says not to worry, that he won’t need them.

“She then realizes what the vans are [and] where these patients are being taken,” Sossi said. “She comes home devastated. And in the middle of that devastation, suddenly there’s noise outside.”

The sisters look out their window and see the infamous Reichstag fire, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists and used to their advantage, solidifying their power and suspending most civil liberties in Germany.

“So those two things that happen to her definitely put her into reality,” Sossi continued. “She just wants to stay in bed and cover her head with the covers, and never go to the cabaret again.” 

But Matilde persuades her to go, do her act, and behave as if everything is normal. There are Nazis in the audience who are unresponsive to her risqué jokes, and Magda ends by singing a German folk song and raising her hand in a Nazi salute. 

“So in that last cabaret sequence, Magda is terrified and goes along,” Sossi said.  

Meanwhile, Matilde tries to leave the apartment to see Magda perform, but she falls on the stairs. When help is called, the authorities become aware of her disability.

Schlapkohl said the primary issue she explores in the play is how we perceive one another. “What might it take for us to perceive each other as something so horrific that we would go along with extermination?”

She continued, “And how can we change our perception? How do we stay alert to how we view each other? What do we need to do to make ourselves keep asking really difficult questions about the opinions that we hold toward people who are not exactly like us?”

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The Wedding Gown That Made History

Lilly Friedman doesn’t remember the last name of the woman who designed and sewed the wedding gown she wore when she walked down the aisle more than 60 years ago. But the grandmother of seven does recall that when she first told her fiancé Ludwig that she had always dreamed of being married in a white gown, he realized he had his work cut out for him.

For the tall, lanky 21-year-old who had survived hunger, disease and torture, this was a different kind of challenge. How was he ever going to find such a dress in Bergen-Belsen’s displaced person’s camp, where they felt grateful for the clothes on their backs?

Fate would intervene in the guise of a former German pilot who walked into the food distribution center where Ludwig worked, eager to make a trade for his worthless parachute. In exchange for two pounds of coffee beans and a couple of packs of cigarettes Friedman would have her wedding gown.

For two weeks Miriam the seamstress worked under the curious eyes of her fellow DPs, carefully fashioning the six parachute panels into a simple, long-sleeved gown with a rolled collar and a fitted waist that tied in the back with a bow. When the dress was completed she sewed the leftover material into a matching shirt for the groom.

Lilly Friedman
Lilly and Ludwig Friedman on
their wedding day, Jan. 27, 1946.

A white wedding gown may have seemed like a frivolous request in the surreal environment of the camps, but for Friedman the dress symbolized the innocent, normal life she and her family had once led before the world descended into madness. Friedman and her siblings were raised in a Torah-observant home in the small town of Zarica, Czechoslovakia, where her father was a melamed (teacher), respected and well liked by the young yeshiva students he taught in nearby Irsheva.

He and his two sons were marked for extermination immediately upon arriving at Auschwitz. For Friedman and her sisters it was only their first stop on their long journey of persecution, which included Plashof, Neustadt, Gross-Rosen and finally Bergen-Belsen.

Four hundred people marched 15 miles in the snow to the town of Celle on January 27, 1946, to attend Lilly and Ludwig’s wedding. The town synagogue, damaged and desecrated, had been lovingly renovated by the DPs with the meager materials available to them. When a sefer Torah arrived from England, they converted an old kitchen cabinet into a makeshift Aron Kodesh.

“My sisters and I lost everything. Our parents. Our two brothers. Our homes. The most important thing was to build a new home,” Friedman said.

Six months later, Friedman’s gown was in great demand. Her sister Ilona wore the dress when she married Max Traeger. After that came her cousin Rosie.

How many brides wore Friedman’s dress? “I stopped counting after 17,” she said.

Lilly Friedman
The three sisters are pictured with their
families standing in front of a cattle car
like the one used to transport them to Auschwitz.

When President Harry Truman finally permitted the 100,000 Jews who had been languishing in DP camps since the end of the war to emigrate in 1948, the gown accompanied Friedman across the ocean to America. Unable to part with her dress, it lay at the bottom of her bedroom closet for the next 50 years, “not even good enough for a garage sale. I was happy when it found such a good home.”

Home was the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

When Friedman’s niece, a volunteer, told museum officials about her aunt’s dress, they immediately recognized its historical significance and displayed the gown in a specially designed showcase, guaranteed to preserve it for 500 years.

But Friedman’s dress had one more journey to make — the Bergen-Belsen museum, which opened on Oct. 28, 2007. The German government invited Friedman and her sisters to be their guests for the grand opening. Although they initially declined the invitation, the family finally traveled to Hanover the following year with their children, their grandchildren and extended families to view the extraordinary exhibit created for the wedding dress made from a parachute.

Friedman’s family, who were all familiar with the stories about the wedding in Celle, were eager to visit the synagogue. They found the building had been completely renovated and modernized. But when they pulled aside the handsome curtain they were astounded to find that the Aron Kodesh, made from a kitchen cabinet, had remained untouched as a testament to the profound faith of the survivors. As Friedman stood on the bimah once again, she beckoned to her granddaughter, Jackie, to stand beside her where she was once a kallah (bride).

“It was an emotional trip. We cried a lot,” she said.

Two weeks later, the woman who had once stood trembling before the selective eyes of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele returned home and witnessed the marriage of her granddaughter.

The three Lax sisters, Lilly, Ilona and Eva, who together survived Auschwitz, a forced labor camp, a death march and Bergen-Belsen have remained close and today live within walking distance of each other in Brooklyn. As mere teenagers they managed to outwit and outlive a monstrous killing machine, then went on to marry, have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and were ultimately honored by the country that had earmarked them for extinction.

As young brides, they had stood underneath the chuppah and recited the blessings that their ancestors had been saying for thousands of years. In doing so, they chose to honor the legacy of those who had perished by choosing life.

Helen Zegerman Schwimmer, the author of “Like The Stars of The Heavens,” is online at